On Voting and Motivation
Two weeks ago we had an election here in California, though it appears many of us may have missed it. As was predicted, so did it happen. Turnout during mid-term, primary elections is traditionally low, but even that didn’t stop every newspaper and journalistic organization from jumping the gun and predicting the worst. Well, as far as self-fulfilling prophecies go, congratulations, California just experienced the lowest voter turnout rate on record, a measly 18.3%.
What’s worse is that even here in “active” Santa Cruz County we had a dismal number of voters. For instance, in South County, which includes Watsonville, Freedom, Rio Del Mar, La Selva Beach, Interlaken and Aromas, an area with a total population that exceeds 80,000 on a bad day, we had less than 5,000 voters turn up at the polls. As one of my coworkers jokingly put it, “there were more poll workers than voters.”
So why didn’t people turn out? Well I could give you the same diagnosis every other political/civic blog will, that it comes down to one of two things. A) It’s not convenient. In an era when I can tap into the practically infinite collective consciousness of all of humanity with a few swipes on the screen in my pocket, showing up to a specific location on a specific day just seems out of place. But I don’t think that’s the one that really matters. People will deal with the inconvenience if they really believe in something, which brings me to B) They don’t think it matters (and with good reason, at least partially).
As now former Secretary of State Candidate Dan Schnur likes to say in his stump speech, the millennial generation, my generation, votes in the lowest numbers we have ever seen, but volunteers at a higher rate than any other generation. Obviously we care about participating civically, but don’t see the political system as the best way to do it. Can you blame us? Does our vote really count? Yes and No.
Starting with the No, on a federal level, no, our vote is practically worthless. Unless you live in a swing state or a competitive congressional district, your vote will not change an election. Incumbents win above and beyond 50% in most races, and the districts have been gerrymandered in such a way that only 5-10% of most seats are up for grabs in a given year (and even that’s a stretch). Plus it’s not like Congress will actually do anything, having now sat through two of the most unproductive congressional terms in our nation’s history, I have no faith in a sudden ramp up in activity anytime soon.
However, and here is where I blame our civic education, on a local level, yes, your vote carries a lot of weight. Yet no one ever talks about local elections. Why!? In Santa Cruz County, less than 20% of the population decided on who our next head of county law enforcement will be and whether or not to fund local parks through increased taxes. In Monterey they may have very well decided the fate of that entire region’s water supply, but no one bats an eye!
The sad thing is that local elections actually affect your everyday life much more so than any federal election. The roads you drive on, the water you drink and the power you receive are all governed by local government. But I guess that just isn’t as glamourous as the 24 hour news cycle and frenzied extremism that we see on the national level.
So where do we go from here, a renewed focus on civic education, with more attention being paid to the local level. That’s what I will be working on with Civinomics. We will be speaking at high schools, knocking on doors and holding more events that focus on the issues that matter, local issues. And as we expand into new areas, we will maintain our local focus because that’s what it’s going to take. If we lose sight of what we actually can change, how can we ever hope to deal with the bigger problems? If our civic culture goes by the wayside then what good is democracy?
At least with local issues people will listen, and with us, we will make sure your voice is heard.